Sunday, January 31, 2010

A Dangerous Fruit - Pequi

Brazil is home to a thousand varieties of fruits, many of which are familiar to North Americans, and others from non-Brazilian cultures. There are many other fruits which are practically unknown outside the boundaries of this enormous country. One particularly fascinating example of this is the pequi (the word is the same in English and Portuguese, and is pronounced "pay-KEY"). It is adored by many, and detested by probably an equal number who object to its strong flavor. It is quite "modest" in appearance, being neither large or small, and not particularly beautiful. And it can be extremely dangerous to eat - not because it is poisonous or toxic, but because it can seriously damage the unwary eater's tongue, gums and upper palate. It's one scary fruit!

The pequi is native to the central part of Brazil, and in particular is identified with the Brazilian region called The Central-West, with the state of  Goiás, and with a particular ecoregion called the cerrado. The Brazilian cerrado is a vast tropical savanna covering much of central Brazil south of the Amazon rainforest, and it has been recognized by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) as the biologically richest savanna in the world. The identification of the pequi with the cerrado is so strong that a common nickname throughout Brazil for an inhabitant of the cerrado is "pequi." The pequi is a tree-fruit, and the pequi tree grows up to 30 feet high (10 meters). The fruit matures and is harvested during the dry season, usually July to September.

The pequi is used extensively in the cuisine of  Goiás, and of other states in the same region. It is always cooked, never raw, and interestingly is added primarily to savory dishes rather than to sweet ones. Two of the most popular dishes with pequi are Chicken with Pequi (frango com pequi in Portuguese) and Pequi Rice (arroz com pequi.) This is probably due to the unique flavor profile of the pequi which is a complex and strong-tasting mixture of sweet, fruity, and cheesy flavors. Those who do not like the flavor of pequi often complain of these cheesy flavors, describing them as "sweaty" or "barnyard-like." Those who love pequi often focus on the same flavors. It's definitely an "off" flavor, and like most such flavors is usually an aquired taste.

Whether the pequi is eaten as part of a dish like Chicken with Pequi, or simply on it's own, one must be very careful in approaching this "dangerous" fruit, as it can cause serious harm to the unwary or foolhardy. The fruit has an edible skin, with soft flesh inside surrounding a large, stony pit. The pit is surrounded by a number of sharp spines which, if eaten, lodge themselves in the soft flesh of the mouth - the tongue, the gums and the palate. Once lodged they are very difficult to remove, and are very painful. It's as if one ate a botanical variety of porcupine and got a mouthful of quills. The only safe way to eat a pequi is to take it whole in one's hands (never use a knife and fork), and using only the top front teeth, carefully scrape the outer layers of soft flesh into the mouth. Any other technique can result in serious damage. The photo below shows exactly how the spines are lodged in the flesh of a pequi.

For the adventuresome eater, the pequi is an unforgettable experience. Like any other food that has potential to cause harm, or any other that has a strong, possibly-objectionable taste, it should be sampled very carefully and lightly. You may find you've discovered a new gastronomic delight (it certainly won't be like anything else you've ever eaten), or you might find that you've only discovered a loathsome fruit, in a deadly package.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Artisanal Food - The Bride's Big Thigh

When I'm at farmers' markets, or in artisanal craft shops anywhere in Brazil, I'm always on the lookout for home-made food products. They are usually delicious, usually unknown to me, and often have interesting histories or traditions associated with them.

This week, in Fortaleza's Mercado Central, I came across a small package labeled "Coxão de Noiva". It appeared to be some sort of sweet at first glance, and I have to admit I was initially intrigued by the name, which can be translated into English as "The Bride's Big Thigh."  On the label were the words "doce caseiro" which means home-made sweet, and a list of ingredients. There were only three ingredients on the label - coconut, sugar and condensed milk.

I bought a package to sample Coxão de Noiva at home, and perhaps to add a post to Flavors of Brazil. When I got home an unwrapped the package, I noticed the interesting shape or form of the sweet - sliced like a piece of terrine or pate, the Coxão de Noiva was formed by stacking alternate layers of coconut candy and doce de leite, a mixture of condensed milk and sugar, more commonly known in North America by its Spanish name, dulce de leche. As the layers were hard at the time they were stacked, the slice was not solid. The effect was more like an airy or lacy layer-cake, sliced thinly. I tasted it, and though it was extremely sweet for my tastes, it was simple and tasty, with flavors of burnt coconut, and butterscotch.

I talked to several friends here in Fortaleza who told me this sweet was well-known as a traditional candy from the interior of Ceará state. Some remembered it from childhood. Being curious to know a bit more about the history of this food, I decided to do some research on the internet on Coxão de Noiva. To my surprise there was not one reference to it in Google, nor in any other search engine. Every time I searched, the search engine suggested that perhaps I meant Colchão de Noiva. This translates as The Bride's Mattress, and is a popular cake in Brazil, of Portuguese origins, made with flour, sugar, eggs. etc.

Because the words coxão and colchão have almost identical pronunciations in Portuguese, I'm wondering if somehow, somewhere along the line someone misunderstood one word for the other, and what was originally The Bride's Mattress suddenly became The Bride's Big Thigh. Or perhaps, there was once a linguistic joker who just couldn't resist the opportunity to change the name. It will probably remain a mystery, unless someone decides to post something on the internet to explain it. No one I know here in Brazil can.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

RECIPE - Sirigado Stew a la Colher de Pau

One of Fortaleza's best known restaurants for regional cuisine, Colher de Pau, is famous for its fish stew (Peixada in Portuguese) made from Black Grouper (sirigado or badejo). Colher de Pau, by the way, simply means "The Wooden Spoon", and the restaurant's food is firmly local and traditional without being slavish in its attempt to highlight the food traditions of Ceará state. Incidentally, Colher de Pau was recently named the Regional Restaurant of 2009 by the Brazilian food and culture magazine Veja Guia Fortaleza.

Although the recipe calls for sirigado, it can successfully be reproduced with any firm-textured, white-fleshed fish, such as grouper, snapper, or halibut. Fishes that flake easily, like cod, are less successful substitutes. Peixada is traditionally served with white rice, and fish pirão. Pirão is a thick gravy made from seasoned fish broth thickened with manioc flour. Plenty of hot sauce is always available for those who wish a spicier peixada.

RECIPE - Sirigado Stew a la Colher de Pau
(Serves 2)

For the fish broth:
3cups water
1/4 pound sirigado, coarsely chopped
1 pound sirigado heads (including gills), well washed
salt to taste

For the Stew:
1 pound fillet of sirigado (or other substituted fish as above), cut into three or four large pieces
1/2 tsp. of salt
Juice of 1 lime
Fresh ground pepper to taste
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup coarsely chopped white cabbage
1 medium tomato, cut in half
1 medium yellow onion, cut in half
1 medium green pepper
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1/2 cup chopped green onion
1 chayote, cut in half (if available), cooked
2 small boiling potatoes, peeled, cooked and cut in half
1 medium carrot, cut into large chunks, cooked
1 hard-boiled egg, peeled, but left whole
1 cup canned coconut milk
2 Tbsp. tomato paste
Make the fish broth: Bring the water to a boil in a large pan. Add the fish, plus fish heads and gills and salt. Simmer for 15 minutes.  Drain carefully through sieve, reserve.

Season the fish fillets with salt, lime juice, and fresh-ground pepper. Cook the fillets in simmering fish broth, adding the cabbage, and continue simmering until the fish is just tender. Do not overcook. Meanwhile, in a large frying pan heat the olive oil and saute the tomato, the onion, the green pepper, the cilantro and green onion for five minutes. Stir in the fish broth, and then carefully add the fish fillets, the cooked vegetables (chayote, potatoes, carrots) and the hard-boiled egg. Stir in the tomato paste. Let simmer for five minutes, then add the coconut milk. Heat briefly, but do not boil. Serve with white rice and pirão.

Sirigado = Badejo = ????????

Fortaleza, where I live, is a paradise for lovers of fish and seafood. The local seas and shores are full of marine life, and the majority of commercial fishing is still artisanal - done by groups of two or three men sailing out to sea on small rafts, called jangadas, for up to a week at a time. Returning to land, they sell their fish at a fish market located on the shore within site of the port for these jangadas.

I'm just learning my way through the local variety of fishes, and the vocabulary for these varieties. One of my favorite fishes, perhaps my favorite, is referred to locally as either sirigado or badejo. Both names seem to be equally acceptable and equally used. The taxonomy and nomenclature of fish species is a notable linguistic problem, and those with more patience and more time than I have spent considerable time tracking down local or regional names in hundreds of languages for just one fish species. Fortunately, much of the fruit of their labors is now available online.

I've been curious what the English name for this fish is for quite a while, and after some googling today, I discovered via a site for professional translators that it is called Black Grouper in English, or less commonly Black Rockfish. This led me to the website of the Florida Museum of Natural History where I learned the following fascinating facts about this absolutely delicious (if not very pretty) fish:

  • Its habitat is in the Western Atlantic Ocean, along the coasts of the Americas, and it is found from Massachusetts to the southern coast of Brazil.
  • Black groupers can reach up to 52 inches (133 cm) in length and can weigh up to 179 pounds (81 kg). Most of the black grouper that are caught average a little over 2 feet in length (70 cm). They can live over 30 years, but most of the growth occurs during the first ten years of life. 
  • They feed primarily on smaller reef fish, such as grunts, snappers and herrings. They also consume crustaceans.
  • All Black Groupers are born female (this makes them protogynous hermaphrodites, should you care to know). Later in life some undergo a change in sex to become male, so as to allow the species to reproduce. 
Gastronomically, it is primarily the fillet of this fish that is served. It has a very white flesh, similar to the color of halibut, and the flesh can be separated into large flakes. It is very juicy when not overcooked, and it takes to all sorts of treatments and cooking techniques, from simple grilling and pay-frying to complicated saucings. It's flavor is well-developed, but not strong, and has little "fishy" flavor.

Sirigado/Badejo is highly valued here in Fortaleza, and in restaurants dishes with this fish are usually higher in price than dishes with other species. However, by North American standards it is relatively inexpensive. At the market, I buy a one kilogram (2.2 lbs) of sirigado for the equivalent of $5.00 to $8.00.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Coconut Water (and Coconut Milk)

There's a lot of confusion in the world of coconuts - what is coconut milk? and what's coconut water? I've heard of cooking disasters when a recipe called for one of these ingredients and the cook substituted the other. And I've read travel articles in which otherwise knowledgeable writers talk about some marvelous experience on a beach drinking coconut milk from a fresh green coconut. Although both substances come from exactly the same plant, the coconut palm found in tropical zones throughout the world, they are entirely different things.

In Brazil, both are used extensively. Brazilian food, or Brazilian beach life, without these two ingredients would be missing some very significant signature flavors. So to make things perfectly clear....

Coconut water (água de coco in Portuguese) is the clear liquid inside young green coconuts. Inside the coconut is a round cavity which is filled with this liquid, surrounded by a jelly-like substance. As the coconut matures, the liquid evaporates, and the jelly hardens into the familiar white "meat" of a dried coconut. It is very refreshing drink, and in Brazil is usually served directly from a chilled fresh coconut, which has been opened on the top with a machete. Coconut vendors are ubiquitous on Brazilian beaches, and can be found as well on streets and squares all over Brazil. Coconut water is extremely nutritious, without having many calories, and is often recommended for people with dietary products. It has only 16.7 calories in 100 grams, and has high amounts of potassium and and other minerals. In fact, per ounce, coconut water has more electrolytes than most sport drinks, and more potassium than bananas. It is a sterile liquid, so there is no health concerns in areas where water might be polluted. It is even used as an intravenous hydrating solution in some tropical areas where no saline solution is available.

Coconut milk (leite de coco), on the other hand, is a product not of young green coconuts, but of mature, dry coconuts, and is a manufactured product rather than a natural one. To make coconut milk, the meat of a mature coconut is grated. Then boiling water is poured over the grated coconut, and when the mixture cools, the coconut is squeezed to extract the milk. Unlike coconut water, coconut milk has a high concentration of fat, and the result of the first squeezing of grated coconut is sometimes called coconut cream, with subsequent squeezings producing coconut milk. Coconut milk is rarely served as a drink, and its primary uses are in cooking. In Brazil, coconut milk is particularly associated with the cooking of the state of Bahia. Other tropical cuisines, like Thai and Polynesian cuisines, make wide use of coconut milk.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Upmarket acarajé - Cabana da Negona restaurant

In recent posts, the traditional sale of acarajé on street corners and squares throughout Bahia has been discussed. In the most recent post on this subject, the close connection between acarajé and the Afro-Brazilian religion of candomblé was highlighted. However, not all acarajés are sold in this traditional manner, and this signature dish of Bahian cuisine shows up on restaurant menus everywhere in Brazil, from small hole-in-the-wall lunch spots, to white tablecloth fine dining establishments.

In more upscale restaurants, the traditional acarajé is more likely to be modified or altered; in the more traditional ones, it is likely to be served exactly as it is outside on the streets. Last night, I dined here in Fortaleza with some friends in a Bahian-style restaurant called Cabana da Negona. The name of this restaurant is particularly hard to translate into English. It literally means The Hut of the Large Black Woman. But negona, and similar Portuguese words derived from "negro" such as neguinho and negão, are familiar and affectionate and are even used in Brazil to refer to persons who are not black. So, you might say a better translation for the name of this restaurant is "Big Mamma's Hut."

Although the inspiration of the cuisine at Cabana da Negona is Bahian, the menu offers many non-traditional dishes. Their acarajé  is served as an appetizer, and consists of six mini-sized acarajé served with the traditional accompaniments of dried shrimp, hot chili paste, chopped tomatoes and onions, and vatapá. The platter served two perfectly, and remained true to the tastes of Bahia without the heaviness which often mars traditional acarajé. The chili paste was appropriately strong, and the shrimps were large, well cleaned and trimmed, and not overly-strong in flavor. As they say here in Brazil, it was uma delícia.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A Rainbow of Mangoes

January is the height of mango season in Northeastern Brazil. With the many varieties of mangoes in this country, there is always fresh mango available, but it is now, when summer is at its peak, that most mango trees bear fruit. During a drive last week to the small coastal resort of Canoa Quebrada, I passed thousands of road-side mango trees, almost all of them heavy with fruit. With such an abundance, it is no wonder that mangoes are currently selling for pennies a pound in local markets.

Living in North America, I was used to a very limited choice in varieties of mangoes. There were the large roundish red/green mangoes that usually came from Mexico or Hawaii. And there were the yellow, kidney-shaped ones called Manila, though I'm not sure if they actually came from the Philippines or not.

But here in Brazil, the variety of mangoes is astounding. On the website Toda Fruta there are photos of the most common Brazilian mango varieties. Here is a photo sampling from that site to show the spectrum of Brazilian mangoes. Each variety is labeled in the photo.

(Click any picture to enlarge)

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Food of the Gods - Acarajé

In my previous post about Brazilian certification of the selling of acarajé as a national treasure, I mentioned that there were strong links between the custom of baianas selling acarajé on the streets and in the squares of Salvador, Bahia, and the Afro-Brazilian religious traditions of  candomblé. Ubiratan Castro de Araújo, ex-director of the Center of Afro-Oriental Studies at the Universidade Federal da Bahia said in 2001, "The market of acarajé is a great market given by the orixás (gods and goddesses of candomblé) to the holy women of Bahia."

The tradition of public sales of acarajé has its origin in the universe of candomblé : the "obligation of acarajé" in which the priests and priestesses of candomblé authorized the production and public sale of acarajé by women initiated in the ritual traditions of candomblé , with the objective of covering the costs of their initiation. Following a ritual practice,  acarajé was traditionally sold from rounded wooden bowls, similar to those used in the rituals of candomblé to offer to the orixás and their followers this very same food.

Acarajé  is specifically connected to the cult of the goddess Iansã in the pantheon of the orixás. She is the goddess of wind, of hurricanes, of calming breezes and of storms, of things that pass with the wind, of ephemeral love, of anything that does not last forever. She is also identified with the River Niger in Africa. Her day is Wednesday, her number is nine, her colors are red, pink and brown, and her food, of course, is acarajé.

Today, many of the women selling acarajé in public are not connected with the world of  candomblé , nor are most of their clientele. However, even if they might be unaware, the clothes they wear, the utensils they use, the cooking techniques they employ, the arrangement of their selling table, and the food itself, are all intimately connected to the religious traditions carried to Brazil in centuries past by the slaves brought from Africa to work in Brazil's fields and mines.

Brazilian Sun-Roasted Chicken

Many parts of Brazil, particularly along the coast, enjoy almost eternal sunshine. Since the country lies astride the equator, the power of the sun can be extremely strong, particularly on Brazil's sandy beaches. Brazilians and tourists alike naturally love to lie on the beach and bake in the sun. Many tourists are unaware, however, that Brazilians often use this "solar power" on the beach to roast a chicken while they enjoy themselves in the sand and surf.

Click on "read more" for a recipe and photo of this unusual cooking technique.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

RECIPE - Acarajé

One of the most iconic foods of traditional Brazilian cuisine, and undoubtedly the dish most identified with the African-influenced cuisine of the Brazilian state of Bahia, this humble fritter made from black-eyed pea flour, sold on street corners and in squares as a snack, has enormous appeal to the Brazilian palate, and is the object of much nostalgia for Brazilians and for tourists who have come to know acarajé but who are now far away from the streets of Salvador, Brazil.

Available locally in Salvador and elsewhere in Brazil for a few reais (about $3.00-$4.00) acarajé is unfortunately not easy to duplicate in a home kitchen. The problems involve both the difficulty in finding necessary ingredients (e.g. dendê oil) in locations far from Brazil and in the actual prodution of the acarajé which can be extremely time-consuming and tedious. I have successfully made acarajé at home, when I lived in Vancouver, Canada, but I probably would not attempt it again. It's definitely a challenge.

However, for those readers of Flavors of Brazil who feel up to challenge, those who are dying of saudade for the aroma and flavor of acarajé, or for those who are merely curious about how it's done, here is a recipe translated and adapted from Cozinha Regional Brazileira, by Abril Editora.
RECIPE - Acarajé

1 kg. of dried black-eyed peas
2 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic
1 Tbsp. salt
1 litre dendê oil (for frying)

In a very large bowl, cover the peas with water and let soak for at least 24 hours to soften the peas and to facilitate the removal of their skins.
Drain water, re-fill the basin several times, stirring the peas to remove as many skins as possible. Rubbing  handfuls of beans vigorously between the hands assists in this process. After several changes of water, drain, and individually remove the skins from any peas that still have them. (Allow plenty of time for this.)

In batches, blend the skinless peas, the onion, the garlic and the salt in a blender or food processor until you have a light batter. Pour the batter into a large, dry bowl, and beat with a wooden spoon, lifting the mass from bottom to top until you have a airy mass that has doubled in volume.

Heat the oil in a large pan, or deep-fryer. Meanwhile, soak two very large wooden spoons in water, then use them to form fist-sized balls of batter. Drop them one by one into the hot oil to fry until they are bright orange and crispy, turning them over halfway through the frying process.

Remove from the oil, and let cool for a few minutes. Serve the acarajé with vatapá (recipe soon in this blog), hot pepper sauce, fried dried shrimps, and finely chopped green tomatoes.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A National Treasure - Baianas Selling Acarajé

Many countries have a official list of national treasures, or a museum which displays the best of the nation's artistic and cultural heritage. The Tower of London houses England's crown jewels, in Paris, the Louvre houses paintings by Watteau, the Musée d'Orsay displays the works of Manet, Monet and Gauguin, and the Centre Pompidou showcases the best of 20th Century art. Brazil has a national institute called the Institute of National Historic and Artistic Patrimony (Instituto do Patrimônio Histórico e Artístico Nacional), commonly known in Portuguese as IPHAN, which has been charged with selecting the best of Brazil's historic, cultural and artistic treasures. What is most interesting is that IPHAN has been charged not only with selecting paintings, buildings, palaces and churches, it has been charged with selecting those immaterial treasures that are central to the conception of Brazilian culture. This list of immaterial national treasures includes food and cooking, and though I am not sure if Brazil is the only country to so classify foods and preparation techniques, I'm sure it is one of a very few. It's as if the USA declared that Kansas City Barbeque or Cajun Jambalaya were national treasures, worthy of inclusion in the Smithsonian Institute, or if Canada bestowed such an appellation on Quebec's poutine.

Currently there are 15 items registered by IPHAN as immaterial national treasures of Brazil. They include traditional dances, country fairs, methods of making lace, musical instruments, and childrens games. IPHAN chose in 2004 to add acarajé to this list, and significantly chose to add not only the food item itself, but also the historically significantly way that it is prepared and sold on the streets of Salvador, Bahia, by women known as baianas. In the certification of  "Acarajé as Sold by Baianas" as a national treasure, IPHAN included acarajé itself and the way it is prepared, the traditional clothing of the baianas, which is linked to the rituals of the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé, and the customary layout of accompaniments on the baianas' streetside tables, called tabuleiros.

Most Brazilians, including those from the state of Bahia and those who are not, would agree that acarajé well deserves its place in the Brazilian cultural pantheon. Few are the tourists who leave Salvador without having tasted this treat at least once, and fewer still are those whose sensory memory of that baroque city does not include the utterly distinctive aroma of acarajé frying in dendê oil and the spicy complex flavor of the offerings of the "baiana de acarajé."

Click on "read more" below for a translation of the official IPHAN certificate of acarajé as a national cultural treasure.